Category: Science

Bayes’ Theorem and Testimony

  Where I actually am while writing this as a Boltzmann Brain When I was younger there was a chain of thought I had regarding my testimony that hinged on Bayesian logic (although I didn’t know the term at the time).  Bayesian statistics and logic is a field that incorporates prior probabilities into current probabilities. For example, I heard (I don’t know if this is true) that most positive HIV tests are false positives, even though the false positive rate is low, say 5%. This is because, while the false positive rate is low, the chance that somebody actually has undetected HIV is quite a bit lower. Therefore, while the chance of you getting a positive HIV test when you don’t have HIV is low, the chance of you getting a positive HIV test when you don’t have HIV conditional on you already having a positive HIV test is high.   In terms of testimony. For me personally I haven’t had one huge Moroni’s promise experience, but rather a lot of accumulated ones and the occasional big one (usually when things are hitting the fan). Of course, motivated reasoning and feeling is a thing, so there is always the possibility that since I have been raised to believe that I would feel spiritual confirmations of the truth claims of the Church, then in some subconscious level I produced such confirmations.  (Of course, if that were the case my testimonial route would…

Let’s Talk about Science and Religion – A Review

Back when I was studying biological engineering in college, I remember one Sunday where a stake high councilor came and spoke in our ward. He based his remarks on Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk “Lamentations of Jeremiah: Beware of Bondage”. When he discussed how “Turning from the worship of the true and living God and worshipping false gods” results in forms of “spiritual, physical, and intellectual bondage,” the high councilor decided to add his own embellishments and examples of what those types of bondage looked like. His first example of intellectual bondage was the belief that organic evolution was real. Given my field of study and life experiences, that went over like a lead balloon. And yet, I at least understood where he came from. I can remember talking with an evangelical farmer at the edge of his property in rural Iowa on my mission and talking about evolution. The farmer was accusing Mormons of believing in evolution, which was a grievous sin in his eyes, and I was trying to convince him that because Bruce R. McConkie said that belief in evolution was wrong, Latter-day Saints were required to reject evolution (since he was sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator), so the farmer didn’t need to feel concerned about that aspect of our religion. While I was very conflicted about rejecting evolution, at the time I was also in the camp that essentially believes that Bruce R. McConkie…

“Adam shall come to visit”

Charles Darwin’s niece once told her son (the famed British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) that: “The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.”[1]  While it is wonderful either way, since the early 20th century, what scientists have come to understand through their studies of evolution has become increasingly important to people to discuss in terms of understanding religion and creation.  Literal readings of the Bible and the histories presented in Genesis underly the idea that organic evolution is not compatible with Judeo-Christianity.  And, for better or worse, a literal understanding of Biblical narratives is a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, influencing the translations and revelations that Joseph Smith produced.  Yet, as the best understanding of the process by which life as we know it was created based on the evidence found in the world around us, evolution is difficult to dismiss.  The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has both features that help with the acceptance of evolution and concepts that make it difficult to embrace the scientific theory—perhaps most notably the concept of a literal Adam. In an 1838 editorial written as a series of questions and answers with Joseph Smith, the Prophet remarked that: “We are the only people under heaven” that believe the Bible, adding that Latter-day Saints…

What do people look up about the Church on Wikipedia?

The following is Stephen Cranny’s second guest post here at Times & Seasons. Stephen Cranney is a Washington DC-based data scientist and Non-Resident Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. He has produced over 20 peer-reviewed articles and five children. When somebody is looking up material about the Latter-day Saint movement on their own, which themes draw their attention? What do they look up? Despite all the attention given to the media’s role in narrative-shaping, the fact is that Wikipedia is still the primary go-to source of information for most things that happened longer than a day ago. While many people are keeping their ears to the ground about the latest media response to this or that, I’m consistently surprised at how little Wikipedia makes an appearance in discussions about framing, so I decided to systematically analyze the Church’s presence on Wikipedia using software I wrote (available on my Github page here). By knowing what people are looking up vis-a-vis the Church, we get a sense of what people are interested in learning about the Church. In my experience, it seems people often associate the Church with very particular subject(s) (polygamy, LGBT issues, etc.), and they implicitly assume that those issues similarly loom large in the consciousness of others, when in fact that particular issue may never cross into the same stream of thought as the Church for most people. My program builds out a citation network of Wikipedia…

Quodlibet: Vaccination

Whereas disease, as now with COVID-19, causes death to many and harm to many more, and worsens poverty and hunger even among those it does not strike directly, and causes fear in those who await infection and its consequences, and inflicts sorrow and grief on those who lose family and beloved friends; while Jesus, in His atoning mercy

Trials, Tribulations, and a Movie: An LDS-themed Discussion of the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN

A well-known axiom in both life and storytelling states that the matters we find most personal are also the most universal. Whether it’s film, literature, or some other medium, stories with the most specific and distinctive settings and points of view are usually those an audience will find most relatable. In the words of Robert McKee: “An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.” A Serious Man, the 2009 masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a darkly comic film exploring the nature of God, religious inquiry, and human suffering. Set among a community of Jews living in Minnesota in the 1960s, the film mirrors the Coen’s formative years, arguably making it their most personal film to date. That level specificity brings with it a familiarity and universality that just isn’t present in most of their work, or anyone else’s for that matter. Mormons can have a hard time grappling with the same issues explored in A Serious Man. We seem to define periods of our lives by the struggles we face. Dealing with trials is the focus of countless conference talks, priesthood and Relief Society Lessons, and videos. Within Mormon doctrine and culture, there are recurring themes about the source and meaning of our mortal struggles. And, let’s be honest, quite often, they are…

Scientists and Religious Belief

Exactly how religious are scientists? The typical assumption is that they aren’t terribly religious at all. Further I think most people assume this is a relatively recent change – say around the time of the second world war. It’s always a difficult question since there’s debate about who is or isn’t a scientist. Are doctors? Are people with computer science degrees? Are people with degrees in science but not practicing in the field? There’s also the question of significance. For instance I’m almost certainly insignificant and especially compared with a Nobel Prize winner. When making these studies do you give more weight to people who’ve published significant articles or who are in academia versus private facilities? It gets complex fast. Any study attempting to answer these questions should be taken with an eye of skepticism. It is interesting though that 100 years ago a survey was sent to 1000 scientists asking them about their belief in God. Around 30% of “greater” scientists believed in a personal god and about 48% of “lesser” scientists did. The numbers were remarkably close to what a 2006 Pew study found with 33% of scientists believing in God.

Zion as Superorganism

Earlier this month, I visited Utah to give back-to-back presentations at conferences by Mormon Scholars in the Humanities and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. Today, I’m going to recap my presentation from the MTA conference, “Zion as Superorganism.” In subsequent blog posts, I’ll share some thoughts about Mormon transhumanism and the rest of the MTA conference (including some of the other talks I thought were particularly interesting), and then also my talk from the MSH. The most well-known description of Zion in our scriptures is of course Moses 7:18: And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. Another implicit description is found in D&C 38, although you have to pull from disparate verses to make the connection to Zion. Here, I start in vs 4 and then skip to 27: I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom… I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine. Based on these two scriptures, I see the hallmark characteristics of Zion as altruism and unity. On the one hand, that gives us a very general conception of what a Zion society would look like. But on the other hand, that’s really nowhere near enough, from a practical standpoint, to go about building a Zion society. This leaves Mormons in a pickle. We’re under divine…

Mormonism at the Scopes Trial

I read Edward J. Larson’s Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997) earlier this month, and was surprised to see the Book of Mormon appear in one of Clarence Darrow’s arguments to the court. Funny how little mention there is of the Scopes Trial in LDS discourse, given how often evolution seems to come up. I have some ideas on that. But first the interesting arguments made to the court by Darrow.

The Day Creationism Died

It was January 5, 1982, the day United States District Court Judge William R. Overton issued his memorandum opinion in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Plaintiffs challenged an Arkansas statute that required Arkansas public schools to “give balanced treatment to creation-science and evolution-science.” The Court found that “creation science has no scientific merit or educational value as science” and that “the only real effect of Act 590 [the Arkansas statute] is the advancement of religion.” As such, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was struck down as unconstitutional. Langdon Gilkey, a theologian who testified at the trial as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, provided an account of the trial in his book Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Winston Press, 1985).

Science, Mormonism, Dialogue

The good news: There is more room for dialogue between science and Mormonism than between science and other conservative Christian viewpoints. Most Latter-day Saints don’t feel threatened by science. The bad news: Some Latter-day Saints do come to see the relation between science and Mormonism as one of conflict rather than dialogue, and sometimes science wins that debate in their head. Why do some Mormons see science and Mormonism as an either/or choice rather than a helpful partnership?

The Approaching Zion Project: Deny Not the Gifts of God

This chapter (understandably) overlaps significantly with the previous chapter, Gifts. These are, after all, discourses he delivered at various times, to various audiences, with common themes. I’m reading them separately, though, and different things hit me at different readings. So, like always, I won’t discuss everything Nibley focuses on (and I’ll try to not spend too much time on things I’ve discussed previously). With that out of the way, on to the chapter.

Science as Friend or Foe

On a recent long drive, I listened to all 12 lectures of a Science and Religion audio book by Professor Lawrence Principe of Johns Hopkins. A topic of personal interest (see my earlier T&S series here, here, here , and here), the science-religion issue should also be more of an interest to LDS scholars and apologists in general, given the role that science, scientism, or a mixture of the two often seems to play in the thinking of young Mormons who choose to exit the Church. My sense is that most people pick up from the media or general education a rather naive view of the relation between religion and science, and that nothing taught in the LDS curriculum does anything to remedy the situation. It is certainly a topic that deserves more attention and better coverage. On this topic, we are failing our youth.

God and Galaxies

Elder Ballard started out his recent Conference talk “This Is My Work and My Glory” with this description and commentary on the wonder of the night sky: A few weeks ago, on a cold, dark winter’s night, my wife, Barbara, and I looked in awe up at the sky. The millions of stars seemed exceptionally bright and beautiful. I then turned to the Pearl of Great Price and read again with wonder what the Lord God said to Moses: “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33). In our day the Hubble deep-space telescope has confirmed the magnitude of what Moses saw. Hubble scientists say the Milky Way galaxy, of which our earth and sun are just a tiny part, is estimated to be only one of over 200 billion similar galaxies. For me it is difficult to comprehend, impossible to fathom, so large and so vast are God’s creations.

Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness

[This is the fourth in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The first three installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings] Now knowing a portion of my background, you can probably guess I’ve had opportunity to give a fair amount of consideration to the concepts of personal responsibility, repentance, and forgiveness. Please take this post as exactly that, my own considerations on these topics, long thought out, studied, prayed about, discussed, and applied, but still open to question/ suggestion/ correction/ reinterpretation. This is also about individual, rather than institutional forgiveness, though I’d love to hear insights from any who have served/ are serving as church leaders where their judgments about people are required in their church work. We’ve talked a bit about accountability in relation to mental illness. I want to start by saying I don’t think repentance and forgiveness are necessary where there is no accountability for error. Learning, yes. And sometimes even apology and explanation. But repentance, no. While acknowledging that someone who has hurt or offended us did not or may not have intended nor be aware of the harm done can allow us to keep moving forward without getting wrapped up in judgment or a desire for vindication, it is not the same as forgiving. When we forgive,…

Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings

[This is the fourth in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The other installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness] During graduate school (in a different field of study), I worked in the university’s office for staff and students with disabilities.  I learned a great deal about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and about how individuals with a variety of disabilities qualify for and obtain accommodations in their work and schooling to enable them to do the work they otherwise (disability aside) are able to do.  As a neophyte, I was most surprised by accommodations given for “invisible” disabilities.  For example, did you know that an individual with certain types of anxiety can qualify for a handicapped parking permit, giving them accessibility to classrooms and other needed campus resources they would not have without this accommodation?  And that students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities can have “readers” and “note takers” (or technology that does the same)?  Extended test time, special accommodations like calculators for testing, someone to type for a student or help edit spelling errors on papers, someone to fill in test bubbles, extra notes or outlines of lectures from professors…  these were all new to me, and frankly, some seemed a little like cheating initially.  But I…

Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others

[This is the third in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The other installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions, Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness] I appreciate the input and insights from those who have experienced depression and other mental health challenges firsthand. Many of the comments have focused on physiological causes and medical helps. I’d like to briefly explore some emotional and psychological factors and their effects and treatments before we discuss implications and applications for church service and church leaders. My own background will provide useful context here. I was raised in the church by parents who had and have continued to regularly serve in prominent callings (including bishoprics, RS presidencies, & full-time missions). They also had unrecognized and untreated mental health issues that made it impossible for them to provide the type of love, stability, nurturing, or teaching needed for children to feel safe, secure, autonomous, happy, or functional–to the degree that they lost custody of children in 3 different U.S. states. Each of my siblings has spent tremendous energy and personal resources to get to places of safety, obtain treatment (medical and psychological), learn healthy patterns of thinking and behavior (including more accurate images of God), and find constructive social support that enhances rather than diminishes their ability to act and not be…

Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions

[This is the second in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The other installments are available here: Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34), Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness] The church’s web page about mental illness includes a brief list of potential causes.  These can include physiological and/or behavioral factors. Mental health or functioning can be compromised due to heredity; birth defect; oxygen deprivation at birth or later; biological trauma (concussion, brain clot, hemorrhage, tumor, seizure activity, bacterial infection); medication, drugs, food, additives, environmental hazards, or other substances that effect brain function; nutritional deficiencies, sensitivities, and anemias; sleep deprivation and its opposite–prolonged bed rest or other immobility/ limitation of physical movement… Behaviorally, mental health can be hampered by child, spousal, or elder abuse, neglect, or abandonment; untreated mental illness in, or substance abuse or poor modeling by a parent or other caregiver; an extreme mismatch between parental and child personality or temperament; food insecurity; prolonged or extreme economic hardship; being a witness or participant in war, violence (including rape and other forms of sexual attack), accident, illness, injury, or other trauma; imprisonment, forced relocation, theft, or other curtailment of liberty or autonomy; divorce and other losses; a variety of continuous stressors; and (yes) guilt over personal sin & transgression. Usually, difficulties stem from a combination of…

Guest Post: Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability Part 1:”Exceeding Sorrowful, Even Unto Death” (Mark 14:34)

[This is the first in a series of guest posts on Mental Health, Mortal Life, and Accountability. The subsequent installments are available here: Part 2: Causes and (Mis)Attributions,  Part 3: Fractured Images of God, Self, and Others, Part 4: Accommodations in LDS Activities and Meetings, and Part 5: The “Greater Sin”/ Sane Repentance & Forgiveness] Not many years ago, a younger sibling of mine sought to stop her unbearable emotional pain by ending her mortal life.  While she succeeded in completing her suicide, she did not consciously chose this path, and she is not fully accountable for her desperate and tragic actions. In some ways, she is in a safer place, as she is now beyond reach of some of the individuals, circumstances, and influences that had power to destroy her soul. I also believe that many of her challenges continue, and some may even be greater.  I do not know the ultimate destiny of her soul. But I know for sure that God’s love, watch care, influence, empathy, and grace go with her beyond the grave, that the Plan of Happiness, Salvation, and Exaltation is for her, as much as it is for me, and you, and all of God’s precious children. Christ endured the emotional pain that my sister endured specifically so that He can now succor her. As I have mourned and been mourned with through this tragic loss, and as I observe and mourn with others bearing similar and…

Snow, Citizens, and Stewards

It has recently been announced that Steven E. Snow will replace Marlin K. Jensen as the new Church historian. Elder Jensen has been a wonderful historian for our church, bringing both compassion and honesty to the work.I expect this good work will continue under Elder Snow’s direction. I am curious to see what his areas of emphasis will be. I wonder if one of those areas might deal with the pioneers’ settling of West and environmental issues because in the past, Elder Snow has written on this particular stewardship topic.Elder Snow wrote an essay published in New Genesis entitled “Skipping the Grand Canyon.” In it, he reflected on the struggle to survive his grandfather Erastus faced when colonizing the St. George Valley under the direction of Brigham Young. He wrote that although those “early settlers didn’t appreciate the beauty of southern Utah, they preserved it” (243). That preservation was done out of necessity, not out of an aesthetic appreciation. Without careful stewardship, especially of the agricultural lands, those pioneer settlers would not have survived. We are no longer an agrarian society, no longer tied so closely to the land that we feel immediately the effects of our stewardship, for good or bad. Part of that may be because we own such tiny little pieces of land instead of family farms, grazing ranges, and ranches. Even if I do everything I can to improve on my own .21-acre lot in downtown Provo,…

Religious Anti-Intellectualism

A few weeks ago two Evangelical scholars authored “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason,” an op-ed at the New York Times lamenting the fact that the Republican primary race “has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism.” While the Mormons in the race, Romney and Huntsman, were described as “the two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science,” the discussion still invites the LDS reader to reflect a bit on whether there is a similar strain of LDS anti-intellectualism evident in LDS culture if not in LDS presidential candidates.

Consumerism vs. Stewardship

The following is a modified excerpt from my presentation at Sunstone this summer. We live, not only in a capitalist, but a consumerist, society. Our society is all about spending, acquiring, cluttering, and replacing, not about maintaining, restoring, renewing, and protecting. It is cheaper to buy new than to repair old.  We live in a disposable country, where everything is trash, if not now, then soon. How did we get here? One of the best explanations I’ve found is in the work of the social theorist Max Weber (1). He examined the correlation between the Protestant religious belief and its accompanying work ethic and the accumulation of capital and the subsequent rise of capitalism. One aspect [of the concept of calling that arose during the Reformation] was unequivocally new: the fulfillment of duty in vocational callings became viewed as the highest expression that moral activity could assume. Precisely this new notion of the moral worth of devoting oneself to a calling was the unavoidable result of the idea of attaching religious significance to daily work (39-40). The motivation to accumulate wealth was the desire to have confirmation that one was saved. Unlike Catholics, Protestants had no priest to confess to and receive absolution of sins, so the status of soul was in doubt, which was a very uncomfortable position to be in spiritually (60,66). “Restless work in a vocational calling was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the…

Hurricane open thread

It’s going to be a long day for some East Coast readers, but at least you’ve still got Internet. This thread is to share your first-person accounts and post helpful information. My contribution: Weather Underground, the best online source for hurricane tracking information. As of 11 AM EDT Saturday, their tracking map forecasts a storm path for Irene passing directly over New York City at about 8 AM Sunday morning.

Cafeteria Correlation

Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne, 2008) relates Giberson’s journey from fundamentalist Christian student to still-believing but no longer fundamentalist physicist. Chapter 5 of the book critiques the sources of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), primarily George McCready Price’s The New Geology, published in 1923, and Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood, published in 1961. As Price’s book is also a source for LDS YEC beliefs — which for some bizarre reason still seem to guide Correlation in approving statements made in LDS publications — the chapter seems particularly helpful for Latter-day Saints seeking to understand LDS views on science and evolution.